History - The Copywriter's Degree?

Santa Maria de Avià by Reinante El Pintor de Fuego

Santa Maria de Avià by Reinante El Pintor de Fuego

“What education do you need to become a copywriter?” I’ve seen this question asked a few times in the past few weeks. The usual suspects have all reared their heads – English, Psychology, Journalism. I’ve got some different advice. If you want to know what degree to take to learn the copywriter’s skills, do what I did.

Become a Historian.

History – The Copywriter’s Degree?

Not all copywriters study English. Some of the best I’ve worked with studied photography, or performing arts. But if you’re looking for a degree with skills that translate into good copy, history is where it’s at.

Research – The Key to Adaptability

If you’re unlucky, at some point in your career you’ll hear the following sentence:

“How can you write about [complex industry] if you’ve never been a [complex industry worker]?”

The answer to that is simple. It’s exactly the same way you can write about the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution even though you were born in the Eighties. Research. If you’re going to write about industries you don’t have any first hand experience of, you’ll need to read up on them first. History prepares you for this. You learn which sources you can trust, which accounts are unusable due to bias, and how to tell the two apart.

Exercise Those Writing Muscles

Turning disparate information into compelling arguments. That’s a sentence that sums up copywriting as well as it sums up a history course. And you’ll get more than enough practise.

Essays with strict word counts,  exams where you need to be concise, convincing and compelling, and a dissertation where writing consumes your entire life.  Those three things make history the perfect degree for prospective copywriters.

Travel The World, Meet New People

A bit of life experience enriches your copy no end. Unfortunately, if you’re straight out of university your life experience probably extends to 2-4-1 drinks offers, home remedies for Fresher’s Flu (whisky mixed with honey cough medicine, if you’re asking) and which local pubs offer a free sandwich on pub quiz night.

Luckily, as a historian you’ll be able to call upon the life experiences of thousands of people from across the world. Ok, your recall of French munition production in the lead up to Verdun might not help – but the hopes, dreams and fears of generations past can help make anything a riveting read.

If you’re a student looking for advice, or you’re a copywriter wanting to make a case for your degree, join in the discussion below.

8 Comments comments for "History – The Copywriter’s Degree?"

  1. Ben Locker says:

    My degree’s in Mediaeval History – which is even handier because it gives you skills in palaeography, a passing acquaintance with Norman French, an insight into how some cracking writers worked (Boccaccio, Dante, Beroul, Chretien de Troyes, Marie de France etc), gives you an insight into how the copywriters of their day – the chroniclers – operated, and so on and so forth.

    Okay, perhaps none of that’s essential if you want to be a copywriter, but it certainly helped me.

    I think the point is that, if you have any talent with words, history is a good discipline that helps you to hone it. But the two junior honours years I spent doing English Lit, Scottish History and Practical Theology were as handy as the two honours years I spent doing Mediaeval History alone.

    Mind you, that was back in the 90s – all part of history now.
    .-= Ben Locker´s last blog ..Now you can join our online copywriting page on Facebook =-.

  2. I did English Lit with minor in Linguistics. I’m not sure it really helped my career at all, other than being able to say I had a degree. If I have any writing skill it’s come from doing loads of reading (when younger) and my time in trade publishing.

    Between my 2nd and 3rd years I had a job in the display ad dept of the Birmingham Evening News. I often think I’d have been better off dropping out at that point and sticking with the paper. Back then, smoking, swearing and heated arguments (progressively more heated as midnight approached) were all part of the job. Then they fired everybody and took them back on as temps.
    .-= Tom Albrighton´s last blog ..Customer ratings and the tyranny of democracy =-.

  3. Ben Locker says:

    Yes, I’m with Tom – reading shed loads as a kid was important. The experience that made my prose more disciplined was 18 months on a history mag, spent under a perfectionist editor.

    Tom – what happened to your paper sounds exactly like what’s now happened to the Telegraph et al.
    .-= Ben Locker´s last blog ..Now you can join our online copywriting page on Facebook =-.

  4. Not sure if academia is much of a help with copywriting. I was a Philosophy, then computing science graduate, having first dropped out of architecture.

    I think a love of words n’ reading instilled at an early age is the basis. But that needs to be tempered into something more sturdy, preferably under the watchful eye of a perfectionist, as mentioned by Ben. My own apprenticeship was served amongst the cynical hacks of the features dept. of Dublin’s Evening Herald.
    .-= Steve Dempsey´s last blog ..Who would live in a lie like this? =-.

  5. I’m Classics. To be exact: Ancient History, Archeology & Greek – & it’s been crap all use at any point ever in my entire life apart from to get a 100 per cent mortgage back in the early 1990s.

    A degree is only as useful as you want it to be. It can open some doors but it shuts just as many. Mainly because a degree funnels us down a certain path – which in my case (I was a Whitehall Civil Servant) took me 11 damn miserable years to escape from. Perhaps if I’d had no degree I’d have found business, self-employment & copywriting sooner than I did.

    I agree with the others – exposure to good books at an early age is the best grounding for all writers. After that it’s all about hard work, learning from others, ambition, good commercial sense and ditching your ego so you can admit, that at the end of the day, you know crap all.

  6. As with all creative endeavours, a degree isn’t a prerequisite to becoming a copywriter. Sure, if you want to work for a company then it may help, but for those of us walking the freelance path it’s not a necessity.

    I agree that life experience, adaptability, understanding your sector, and an ability to express yourself through words, can be studied at the ‘school of self’; you don’t need a degree for that.

    Perhaps great art can’t be taught – of this, I’m not sure.

    That said, a degree really doesn’t hurt and in many cases it can help.

    It really depends on what type of person you are. Some respond to education better while others benefit from a more hands-on approach; for my part, I’ve traversed both paths.

    Either way, the magic is in the words.

    thanks for the post!!
    .-= Matt Pattinson (copywriter)´s last blog ..Writing for the web: 03 Tailor your Tone =-.

  7. mb says:

    the only ting you need to be a good copywriter is the ability to read + write and a great deal of creative instinct. nought else.

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